Disability terms in Journalism

By Malinda Jorgensen

Often times in your news writing, you have to be careful of what words you write. For example,  you seldom have to be careful of what terms you use to describe someone with a disability. There are people with disabilities out there that would take offense to a term that seems derogative to them. You may not mean to say the term but sometimes they take offense to the term. Here are some advice for using the right terms in your news writing:

  • Hearing impaired: Some deaf people (especially the deaf community) do not like the term “hearing impaired.” They feel like the term puts them in a negative light or less intelligent.  They actually prefer “deaf.”
  • Mental retardation: This one is a BIG NO-NO. I guess nowadays this term is common sense not to use, but I still hear people call people “retards” in general. This term is definitely NOT a word to describe people or even people with disabilities, more specifically mental disabilities. I would take offense to that and I am sure anyone else would too.
  • Confined to a wheelchair/wheelchair bound: people in wheelchairs are not bound to their wheelchairs. They can get out of the wheelchair with some assistance. The right term is “person who uses a wheelchair.”

There are many other derogative terms, but those are a few terms to avoid in your news writing. I know the words listed above are pretty common sense, but not everyone has common sense that they think they do.

So when it comes to writing your article that talks about a person with disability, you may have to consult a source about what terms are okay to use. You can even ask them what they call themselves. For example, you can ask a deaf person if “hearing impaired” or “deaf” works for them. I’m actually fine with “hearing impaired” but “deaf” -not so much. I am not “deaf” technically, because I have cochlear implants. It just varies from person to person or even community to community, which I’m sure works for any term.

Keep in mind that if you use the right term for a disability in your news writing, people will still go after you about using the “wrong” term. Just ignore them as long as you used the right terms according to sources that you have. Sometimes when you accidentally use the wrong term, just apologize-genuinely.

Have you seen wrong/derogative terms in the media or even in news writing? If so, provide example?
Why do you think people use them sometimes in media? Just out of arrogance? Or lack of education?



5 responses to “Disability terms in Journalism

  1. Pingback: Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones, But Your Choice Of Words Hurt Even Worse: how to ask about a child’s condition without using demeaning words and phrases. | Serenity and My Urban Autistic Perspective

  2. Malinda, I really like your take on this important topic. Some “wrong” terms I recall are “crazy,” “deranged” or “nuts” used to describe someone with mental or emotional disorders, like schizophrenia. Oftentimes these words are used in interviews after a shooting or attack, like the recent Washington D.C. shooting. I think this perpetuates taboos on mental disorder, and it increases fear where understanding is needed.

  3. Yes, those words are used to describe someone with a mental disability when they go out and shoot people. I just feel like people should not focus on the gun but on the disabled person. Maybe he needed help beforehand and the only way to attack attention was shooting people. I know this is the issue of gun control but mental disorders come into hand here too. I just hope the gun issue doesn’t make people afraid of people with mental disabilities. Not all of them would go out and shoot people.

  4. Thanks for this post, Malinda. My FYS here was “Portrayal of Mental Health in the Media,” and it absolutely changed my views on so many issues. Maybe not even changed my views, but gave me views and opinions. The most important piece I carry with me today from that class is that anyone with a disability is referred to with “people first” language. A woman with down syndrome is not a down syndrome woman. A boy with autism is not an autistic boy. It is a part of who they are, not the adjective that always accompanies their names. I think you bring up great points for us to remember!

  5. Hmm… I don’t think I saw that as a FYS class last year. Otherwise I would have taken that, because it sounds like it would have been a cool class. Anyway, yes, “people first” language sounds familiar to me, but sometimes it depends on the person too just like the “hearing impaired” term above.

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